By Elana Schor - 10/27/11 11:21 PM EDT
At some point, almost everyone in America has had a proverbial “cool friend”: the type of effortlessly with-it guy or girl who is always recommending a place or an item that you simply have to try. Their preferred foods are generally fantastic, and even their cooking stumbles manage to skate above mediocrity by virtue of sheer chic.
Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Black Jack, the split-level den of mollusks and mingling brought to bustling Logan Circle by the team behind the iconic seafood of BlackSalt, is the restaurant equivalent of that cool friend. When your most plugged-in compatriots suggest a visit — and if they haven’t already, they will — be prepared to wait for a table or throw elbows for a barstool, but don’t worry about regretting the time or money spent.
But happy hour is undeniably the kitchen’s finest period, with those stellar brews, wines and a rotating selection of wave-fresh local oysters offered at half price between 5 and 7 p.m. Paired with baskets of buttery biscuits and jalapeño-dotted cornbread as well as a selection of tart, clever, dipping sauces, a dozen oysters makes for a perfect light dinner.
When oysters rise in price to $2 each, however, seafoodies are bound to look elsewhere for a heartier meal. In that event, diners are advised to steer clear of the kitchen’s more traditional Cajun offerings in favor of a classy quintet of cooked oyster plates and a section of the menu titled simply “Not Fried.”
The gumbo arrives weighed down by a too-thick consistency and over-spiced sausage — even in the seafood variety — but the bacon-wrapped oysters, dubbed “Angels on Horseback,” and a crunchy-creamy crew of grilled, chili-infused oysters were delightful. On the Not Fried roster, fragrant house-made duck sausage could compete with Michel Richard’s best, while a grilled redfish with pillowy grits tastes like the dreamy finfish that Barton Seaver used to serve at Hook.
Of course, modern diners know that entrees are hardly de rigueur for a satisfying meal; Pearl Dive has plenty of smaller plates that can easily serve as a main course. Mariscos de campechana, a can’t-miss cold salad of oysters, shrimp and crab tossed with meaty avocado and jalapeño in the zesty dressing of a classic ceviche, comes in ample portions with tortilla chips for dipping. The barbecue shrimp, unpeeled and big as apricots, are ruddy with a finger-licking sauce that makes good on its menu promise of “messy fingers” but also makes a marvelous match for the spicy garlic bread.
Above Pearl Dive, Black Jack brings a similarly eye-popping décor that is almost laboratory-bred in its hipness, layering bordello-red curtains around a sensuous, New Orleans-themed bar area abutted by a silent film projection and a bocce court. Upstairs is where middle-aged Washingtonians would go to “act like young people,” my companion whispered on one visit as we weaved between couples splitting raw oysters at stand-up tables to claim a seat on a studded couch in the corner.
That point can’t be argued — Black Jack’s pub-centric menu does not offer a significant price cut from Pearl Dive, unlike its hybrid heir a few blocks south, ChurchKey/Birch and Barley. But the pricey grub at Black Jack hardly registers, thanks to its more date-night-ready aesthetic relative to Pearl Dive, where conversations are louder and traffic thicker as the good-natured staff members adjust to the restaurant’s overnight celebrity status.
In fact, visitors waiting for their number to appear on the deli-style tickers that subtly alert you during the often interminable wait for a Pearl Dive table might be well-advised to enjoy a full meal upstairs. In addition to the identical selection of raw oysters and succulent, chili-spiked mussels served at its more upscale cousin, Black Jack offers the same local mushrooms on a house-made pizza, their meaty flavor liberated from the over-fragrant toppings that Pearl Dive piles on.
And where the more classically Creole elements of Pearl Dive’s menu might disappoint, Black Jack hits down-home high notes with duck nachos, stacked West Coast-style in zesty emerald tomatillo salsa, and clever pizzas such as a Philly-inspired meatball-provolone and the veggie-packed Green Goddess.
Those landlubbing dishes give tipplers more to love as they peruse the longer and heftier drink menu at Black Jack. There, cocktail artisans and brothers Ari and Micah Wilder — the brains behind the bar — indulge their wilder side (no pun intended) with the refreshing gin-based Scarlet Sling and the lip-smacking Blue Vein, a riff on the vodka-ginger Moscow Mule.
Pearl Dive does not neglect its liquor cabinet, offering updated takes on the French 75, the Pimm’s Cup and the bellini, but Black Jack’s beverages offer more kick and frozen options for the same prices. And when it comes to dessert, the downstairs location takes the cake — or the pie, as it were, in the case of the perfectly scorched, not-too-sweet slices of pecan and fluffy-fresh Key lime that frequently earn raves.
Yet on the surprisingly long list of desserts, little can compete with the hand-rolled, melt-in-your-mouth rustic crust and chunky filling of the apple pie. Served throwback-style in a small skillet and smothered in cinnamon ice cream, the dish is a perfect iteration of its culinary moment.
If you don’t believe me, ask the cool friend who took you to Pearl Dive.